Devolution for Norfolk and Suffolk: Q&A with Andy Wood - the man who has helped negotiate the deal
- Credit: Copyright: Archant 2016
Over the next fortnight, councillors on 12 councils in Norfolk and Suffolk will decide whether they accept a government offer to hand them powers and money.
But the deal, and the government insistence on an elected mayor at the helm of a combined authority, has proved divisive.
Councils in Norwich, Great Yarmouth, Breckland and North Norfolk pulled out – and if just one of those remaining does likewise, the plug will be pulled.
At a County Hall meeting this week, councillors raised concerns over the lack of information over the costs of setting up and running the mayor and combined authority.
In Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, figures for their deal state it will cost £6m over five years, but no figures have yet been published for the cost in Norfolk and Suffolk. Councils will have to loan the money for the set-up.
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The man who has chaired the meetings between Norfolk and Suffolk leaders over the deal and has played a key role in negotiating the deal is Andy Wood, chief executive of Adnams.
We asked him these questions:
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- 10 Road closed due to accident after car reportedly flips on to its roof
Q What would the benefits of devolution be?
The benefits really are the money flowing into the two counties for the forseeable future. People will say £25m a year is not very much, but that overlooks things. One is that 40pc of that can be used to borrow against over 30 years, so that's £500m which we could have very soon. And there's more than £200m of guaranteed transport money for the next five years, which saves having to argue every year for our share. There's £130m for housing, £30m of which is for local housing in Norwich and Ipswich. The economies of Norfolk and Suffolk have so many strengths, such as agriculture, financial services, technology, food and retail. They are all really good things, but we also have low productivity, low wages and poor connectivity with the rest of the UK, both in roads and technologically. The first devolution deal will really focus on economic development and connectivity.
QBut with councils such as Norwich not part of the process, won't that make it difficult to achieve – particularly on the housing front?
Quite clearly four councils, including Norwich, chose to not approve the scheme of governance and not be involved in the combined authority. Personally, I think that is a great shame because I think we are stronger together. The combined authority can choose to invite those councils to attend meetings as non-constituent members. But I am quite clear that houses, or roads, do not stop at local authority boundaries. How can you talk about economic development around Norwich without them being involved? How can you talk about the infrastructure corridor around Thetford without Breckland being involved? It will be incumbent on us to get people involved.
QWhy do we have to have a
It's a shame, but understandable, that people have focused on the elected mayor. When that word is used it conjures up an image of Boris Johnson, Ken Livingstone or Rudy Giuliani in New York. The mayor of Norfolk and Suffolk would be much more of a chair of the board of the combined authority. Every single leader would have a veto, as would the mayor. The government has been very clear if they are going to devolve money and powers into the two counties, they would have to have a single individual to have a conversation with, to share plans with and, if things are going wrong, to be able to talk to them about that. But that in no way diminishes the individual powers and roles of councils and council leaders. I have asked the government four times about the mayor and the answer is that they want someone to be accountable. I get that.
QWon't that mayor always come from Suffolk, given people living in Norwich, Great Yarmouth, Breckland and North Norfolk won't have a vote?
I am not sure it matters. It matters that we have someone who cares about the two counties and is ready to fight their corner. What's important is that the mayor is somebody credible enough for chancellor Philip Hammond to pick up the phone when he is preparing the government's budget and ask 'what are your priorities for East Anglia'?
QPolitically, though, won't the mayor spend money in areas where he is likely to get votes?
If we have got a credible and competent mayor, it would be a very odd thing if he or she heard a fantastic economic case that came forward that would benefit the entire area if they did not listen to it just because people in the specific area could not vote for them.
QWhy has all this been done behind closed doors?
How can you run a negotiation in the public domain? It's really very difficult and we can see that from Brexit. Ultimately, we have a very good deal which benchmarks very well with other areas going for devolution .
QIsn't this just another layer of local government?
That's a stick to beat the whole process with. The government and the leaders have been very clear, and as a businessman, it's something I hold very dear, that we have to control costs. An elected mayor does bring another layer, but it's important that we have someone in Norfolk and Suffolk who is fighting our corner.
QWhat happens if our councils say no?
The secretary of state has made it very clear that if we vote against it we go to the back of the queue. There's been criticism that this process has been rushed, but it's taken us more than a year to get to this point.
Can you imagine how long it would take to regroup after that and start negotiating again? I am optimistic it will be agreed.
This is a heads and hearts decision and I'm hoping this will be a case where the heads rule.
QIs there a Plan B? Might that involve local government reorganisation?
If councils choose to vote against it, that puts Norfolk and Suffolk in a very difficult situation, both in terms of central government and economically. I think that would inevitably lead to further conversations with the government about how this is all working out for us.
QThe New Anglia Local Enterprise Partnership would have a place on the combined authority. Why should they, given the public has not elected them?
The LEP has a voting role in the same way a council or district leader has a vote. I think that's really important. The business community, including university vice-chancellors, have the opinion that there are real benefits of this deal. We see that it can lead to the missing link on the Norwich Northern Distributor Road being completed. The LEP's voice will not be there to dominate, but it is important that elected representatives can hear from them.
Q. What's in it for you? Why did you take on this unpaid role?
A. I run a business in East Anglia. My vehicles move up and down the roads every day delivering our beers, wines and spirits the length and breadth of the region and I want to see them able to move around more effectively. If we have got a vibrant economy and better infrastructure that is going to be better for my business, but also for all of us. I have a daughter with her own business and she has the connectivity problems I know many businesses have. I want to see Norfolk and Suffolk right at the top table because that's where it deserves to be.'